A couple of years ago, a billboard appeared outside Columbia, S.C., looming above Interstate 26. Beady eyes stared out from a black balaclava emblazoned with an inscription from the Quran—clearly the eyes were meant to be those of a terrorist—and next to them were these words: “ISLAM RISING ... BE WARNED.”
Erected by the Virginia-based Christian Action Network, the sign advertised the group’s documentary about a charismatic Dutch politician with dyed-blond hair, a mysterious past, and a platform of paranoid hate. South Carolina seemed to offer a ready audience for Geert Wilders’s dire warnings against the Muslim religion. Today, with the Republican road show encamped in the state for the Jan. 21 presidential primary, the 48-year-old Dutchman is more than ever a man who needs to be watched and listened to carefully. At home in the Netherlands, his explosive theme of unrelenting hostility to Islam has built his xenophobic Party for Freedom, founded in 2005, into the country’s third-largest political party; across the Atlantic his message packs serious resonance in an American heartland still shaken by the 9/11 attacks. Wilders’s name and message have been invoked repeatedly in South Carolina and at least a dozen other state legislatures as they debate measures to ban an imagined threat: Islamic law.
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